The Power of Storytelling

I knew something was bothering my son as soon as I saw him after school that day. His usual spark just wasn’t there. When I asked him about his day, he told me that he had missed the call-backs for a singing group at his high school. Turns out that he skimmed his email too quickly and went to the audition at the wrong time, which disqualified him from the group. He was so disappointed in himself, and I felt so sorry for him.

I told him I had made a similar mistake in college. I forgot to go to a mandatory meeting for students working in a computer lab, and I lost my job. When my son asked me how I handled it, I paused to think about the lesson I wanted him to learn. What an opening he had given me! I quickly decided to focus on resiliency. I explained that I was mad at myself for about a day, and then I started looking for another job. Fortunately, it all worked out for me; I found a better job as a research assistant. I think my son took this story to heart. His mood started to improve, and soon all he could talk about was the auditions for the next school musical production.

Ah, the power of storytelling. A lot of emphasis has been placed on storytelling as a tool for leaders; in fact, my former leadership coach, Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons, recently published a book on storytelling. In it, she describes three basic kinds of leadership stories, each which serves a specific purpose.

  • Who Am I stories tell who the leader is, what they stand for, and why they do the things they do.
  • Who Are We stories define the culture and values of an organization.
  • Where Are We Going stories paint a picture of where the organization is headed and guide employees towards achieving that vision.

I never realized it before reading Christine’s book, but when my husband and I share stories with our kids, we tell those stories as well:

  • Who Am I stories teach our kids about ourselves, help them learn from our experiences (both good and bad), and share the larger context in which we make parenting decisions. What I shared with my son that day is an example of this kind of story.
  • Who Are We stories help us reinforce our family values. We like to reminisce about the books we read aloud to our kids when they were younger: the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Boxcar Children, and so on. Not only do our kids have happy memories of these books, our stories also remind them of how important reading and education is to our family.
  • Where Are We Going stories generate excitement about family plans and ideally get everyone onboard with planting that garden, researching that vacation, or getting more exercise. However, given how much trip planning and gardening falls onto my shoulders, I think I need to work on my “where are we going” storytelling skills!

Storytelling is critical for leaders and parents. How are you utilizing this powerful tool at home? At work? I’d like to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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